House Narrowly Passes Taxpayer Funded Religious Discrimination in Head Start; ACLU Calls on Senate to Preserve Civil Rights Protections

July 25, 2003 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union today decried narrow passage in the House of legislation to reauthorize the Head Start early education program, that contains a stealth provision that would permit program providers to discriminate based on religion in their hiring and firing. The ACLU said that the bill, if passed, would inevitably cost many talented teachers their jobs and deny many children quality early childhood education.

“”This is bad legislation,”” said Christopher E. Anders, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “”If the Senate fails to protect civil rights when it takes up this bill, we will see a slew of teachers getting fired because they fail to pass new religious tests for employment. Head Start is supposed to be about putting the most qualified educators in front of toddlers who need that early boost to succeed in life – it’s not about government-sanctioned religion in the classroom.””

The bill contains language authorizing religious organizations that operate Head Start programs with federal funds to discriminate using religious criteria when hiring and firing, a provision that the ACLU said would subject currently employed teachers to new religious checks designed to test their piety or adherence to a particular faith. Opposition to this provision of the bill came from a diverse coalition of civil rights, religious and education advocacy groups.

The final vote was 217 to 216, with 12 Republicans joining 203 Democrats and one independent in opposing the bill. There were attempts to correct the civil rights concerns with the legislation, but both failed. Rep. George Miller (D-CA) offered a democratic substitute to the bill, which included a fix to the discrimination clause, but that measure failed 200 to 229, again mostly along party lines. And an amendment, offered by Reps. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), Chet Edwards (D-TX), Barney Frank (D-MA), Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), focused on the religious discrimination clause specifically, but failed to pass in the House on a 199 to 231 vote.

While the House failed to preserve civil rights protections, critics of government-funded religion said the bill faces an uphill battle in the Senate. The provision is the latest in a string of under-the-radar legislative and regulatory moves by the administration to push its faith-based initiative – the central goal of which is allowing religious organizations to discriminate while receiving tax dollars.

“”It’s up to the Senate to stop this unfair and poorly conceived piece of legislation,”” Anders said. “”The classroom is meant to be a place of education and fairness, not a place where you can get a pink slip for worshiping differently than your employer. As the one-vote margin demonstrates, this is not an overwhelmingly popular measure.””

The ACLU’s letter to the House on the Head Start Reauthorization Bill is at:

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